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Richard Peers: Progressive teaching fails the poorest

23 August 2019


AS YOUNG people reflect on their GCSE results, not everyone will have noticed the revolution that is happening in our schools. In fact, it has already occurred in our exam system. The move from progressive-style discovery learning to content-driven, knowledge-rich curricula is led by researchers and educators across the country.

At the start of my career, more than 30 years ago, I was immersed in progressive teaching methods. Twenty years later, as a head teacher, I experienced a conversion: we had simply got it wrong.

Last week, The Guardian carried an article by Peter Wilby about Mike Grenier, a teacher at Eton who is concerned that syllabuses are crammed full of content, and that we need to reduce the material covered but increase its depth. This is not knowledge-light but selective use of knowledge.

The realisation that frequent repetition, revisiting, drilling, and memorisation is at the heart of learning should make us think again about some of the developments in the Church which occurred at the same time as progressive education methods were at their zenith.

We have discovered that learning is more of a spiral than a straight line. Younger clergy across the country are questioning the wisdom of the three-year cycle of readings from scripture. They are asking whether giving people more scripture has really enabled them to know it better. My experience is that the well-meant aims of this reform have not been met in practice. Three years is far too long a gap to be able to remember much about a text.

In parishes in the diocese of Liverpool, two of our dynamic priests have adopted the use of the one-year (Prayer Book) cycle of readings. It is easy to dismiss this as “young fogeyism”, or in some way “precious”. In fact, both of these parishes (Tuebrook, in Liverpool, and Pemberton, in Wigan) are in what in education we would call “challenging circumstances”.

I have worked mainly in schools in areas of deprivation. Progressive teaching methods fail precisely the most deprived.

There is no need to throw out all that has been gained by liturgical renewal. The Common Worship family of liturgies is largely successful. All that is needed is for PCCs to adopt the one-year cycle, using good contemporary translations and the series of Old Testament lessons also available, for an experimental period of, say, five years. Clergy will be able to use the enormous treasury of commentaries and sermons preached on the lections over the centuries, mining the rich theological material available.

A revolution is, of course, a complete circle, or even revisiting the same place in a different way — just like a spiral.

The Revd Richard Peers is Director of Education for Liverpool diocese.


Canon Angela Tilby is away.

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