There are only two types of pedagogy

I’ve had my brain cells jangled over the last few days by some of the debate stirred by Michael Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation on 5th Feb. An earlier Scenes from the Battleground post gave an almost prescient insight on the subject. I’ve looked at a few tweets and one or two blogs on both sides of a divide that seems to be termed ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’, including this one, which seems to indicate that not all of Gove’s evidence is as positive as it could be.

I don’t think traditional and progressive are helpful terms when thinking about pedagogy.

It would seem that ‘traditional’ means direct instruction. It means drill and practice. It means chalk and talk. It means text books. It means students as expectant yet passive learner. It means teacher as sage, mentor and guardian of knowledge.

Whereas ‘progressive’ means discussion. It means group work. It means pupil voice and co-construction. It means learning styles and putting the child firsts. It means teacher as coach, or even facilitator.

To me such division is destructive. I don’t think of pedagogy in that way.

To me there are only two types of pedagogy – fixed scaffold and negotiated scaffold.

In fixed scaffold the teacher sequences the lessons in a set way that will enable the student to master the knowledge by the end of the sequence. The teacher is entirely in charge of this sequence – they know the start points and the end points and they use their teaching skills to enable their students to succeed through the fixed scaffold they have designed.

In negotiated scaffold, the teacher may still set the end point, but the journey to achieve that end point is negotiated between student and teacher. Together they set the learning goals of the students on a short and medium term and the teacher alters their teaching to suit those short and medium term needs.

In my experience, both of these pedagogies have educational merit. The former allows the teacher to apply all their subject knowledge to a given group of students so they can succeed, while the latter allows the student to feel more ownership over their educational journey, therefore engendering motivation. I have recently blogged why motivation is so important.

In fact I have my own small scale evidence of the success of both pedagogies. Back in 2011 I taught a maths group for a year. They were low achieving, working about two years below national standards and, just as a ‘by-the-way’, they were nearly all girls.

I taught the first seven weeks using an entirely negotiated pedagogy. So much so, that I didn’t even set goals for the children – we used a Google Spreadsheet to share what area of maths the children most wanted to learn. I ran that through a word cloud gadget and the words that came up the biggest became the curriculum. Progressive or what? We blogged about the learning and used the responses from the blogs to go off at tangents and start new enquiries that we hadn’t even considered. At the end of those seven weeks the group had made twice the expected progress.

In the second seven weeks I planned the entire learning sequence myself. I analysed the weaknesses and taught a sequence of lessons that I thought would address those weaknesses. Each lesson was laid down in a strict order a week or two in advance. After those seven weeks, again the group had made twice the expected progress.

Now I fully realise that this small scale research would not stand up to the rigours of academic study, but for me it means that I have started believing that both pedagogies work. And it means that I regularly use a mix of negotiated scaffold and fixed scaffold within the sweep of my teaching each year. I tend to use the negotiated stuff to start things off with a class or a group – to get to know them and to help them feel like they own their learning. Then when I know them well enough I use the a more fixed approach, regularly using direct instruction, but still intermingling the odd bit of group work, discussion, and dare I say it (especially when I’ve blogged so negatively about it in the past), facilitation.

In percentage terms I reckon I may start a term about 50/50, but then move to 20% negotiated, 80% fixed by about mid-term. If that makes me more of a traditionalist, so be it.

Really making a difference – The radical-progressive.

I’ve written before about the radical train.

It gives this notion that we’re all somewhere on the train, under bridges, over bridges, whether we be progressives, conservatives or traditionalists… Except, that is, for the radicals who are busy laying the tracks two miles down the line.

And the problem then is, which radical do you follow? The progressives, who are in the engine room, have to make that choice – make the wrong choice and they’ll be hurtling down the wrong tracks. And as everyone knows, trains aren’t that easy to turn round.

Personally, I’ve often tended towards the radical. I like to have ideas – lots of them and then hope some people will shoot down my tracks. I don’t get too worried if they don’t though, because I’m busy having more ideas.

However, I recognise that being that way doesn’t actually get anything done. At times I have to force myself into the progressive, and even the conservative and traditionalist, because each have value in my organisation. Each is important in getting stuff done. Getting stuff done well. Getting stuff done right and safely.

Today I met two people who I would call “radical progressive”. Right at the moment I think these kind of people are the best. They kind see tracks that are off in the future, they are happy to lay a few tracks of their own, but they also have the determination to make their trains go down their tracks. They make me want to be on their trains.

The first person was a teacher called Nadine from a school near mine. Nadine, like me, has an interest in developing her more able learners – her gifted and talented students. She also believes, like me, that a gifted and talented approach to teaching, applied in the right ways can benefit all learners. Fantastic.

Last year I had set up some gifted and talented network meetings following the death of our Local Authority led network. We planned three meetings, cancelled one and at the last meeting there were about 6 people there. For me it was one of those tracks that I had laid and nobody really wanted to go down. Fine.

And then I met Nadine. Like me, she has started a network, but unlike me, she has made a plan for how that network should run. She hasn’t opened it up every school, but limited it to just a few and she has placed an onus on each school to contribute a learning activity to the rest of the schools in the network. She has laid some tracks and driven her train down them – a radical progressive.

And then I met Daniel Harvey. Find him on Twitter at Danielharvey9. Like me, he wanted to get a network of teachers together to meet face to face and share good practice –  a teachmeet – Teachmeet Brum in fact. I had previously organised a Teachmeet back in 2011 – the first Teachmeet Brum which you can read about on Oliver Quinlan’s blog.

The thing is, after that teachmeet, I had a failed attempt at organising a teachmeet and then helped out at another teachmeet but didn’t do a very good job at it – not so many people attended and I had begun to think, oh well, there go some more clean bright tracks into the overgrown, weed-infested place where train tracks go to rust away their latter years.

Not so perhaps. Daniel Harvey has a plan. There are a cluster of primary schools attached to his secondary school. He has a supportive leadership team. He has a passion to improve practice and see positive outcomes for his students – one of the great things about this teachmeet was that his students actually presented – and they did a fantastic job. In short, we can have more teachmeets in Birmingham, because Daniel is a radical progressive – he lays tracks yes, but he is also driving his train down them.

Thanks Nadine. Thanks Daniel. You’ve reminded me to be determined. My own train is a small one-form entry primary school, but I must drive it down some of those radical tracks and not be completely overtaken by the numbers game demanded by league tables and Ofsted.

And I hope neither of you mind if I hop on the back of your train once in a while.

Where are you on the Radical Train?


Have you ever had one of those moments when the camera zooms in on you, everything stands still and you suddenly get it?


I had one with the Radical Train a year or so ago. I was sitting in a room on a leadership course and I suddenly understood a bit more of who I am. I’m a radical. I’m not the most radical of radicals, but I’m still a radical.




Most people are progressives or conservatives. They make the bulk of the train.


Progressives are in the engine room. They keep the power in the engine, they keep the speed up, they keep everything going.


Conservatives are in the first few carriages. They are willing to be driven along by the progressives, but there are a lot of them though, so they are powerful voice if something goes wrong. The reason that the progressives can drive the conservatives is that they are both rational thinkers. They are both persuaded by reason and logic. The progressives work in that mode so as long as the train is going along fine, the conservatives will be easily persuaded by the rational arguments of the progressives.


The traditionalists are a different group altogether. They are in the brake van at the back of the train. They remember the good old days when everything was better. They keep us safe by slamming on the brakes when things get out of hand. When this has happened, when the dust has settled and the train is ready to go again, they have a tendency to keep their hands on the brake. Progressives and conservatives can find it difficult to persuade them because they function at an emotional level.


Radicals also function at an emotional level. This makes them the perfect group to persuade the traditionalists. But unfortunately the radical aren’t even on the train. They’re a couple of miles down the line laying the track for the train to go on. They have a really important job, but they’re often the most excluded of all the groups because they can be so far ahead of anyone else. And they find it really difficult to persuade the progressives who are driving the train because of the difference between how they function – emotional vs rational. Sometimes the progressives don’t leave the station because the radicals have so annoyed them with how the talk to each other. And sometimes the radicals get so disillusioned with how infrequently the progressives drive the train down their tracks that they give up and become traditionalists. Yes, being primarily emotional they are destined for traditionalism if their ideas don’t work.


Recognising all this has really helped me over the last year or so. It’s helped me identify the progressives who can drive the train towards my tracks. It’s helped me talked rationally to progressives and conservatives (just because I’m emotional doesn’t mean I can’t function rationally). And it’s helped me talk to the traditionalists who are just trying to hold the brake on – to talk to them emotionally, value the fears they have for where the train is going and spark the old radicalism that they use to hold into life again.


Recognise where you are on the train and you can affect everyone.
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