The danger of Pseudo-Traditionalist Teachers

Edu-Twitter has become quite a dark place in recent times. There is a vociferous minority of, predominantly the UK, teachers who exalt a particular brand of right-wing ideology that sits uncomfortably with the more enlightened majority in the profession. These neo-traditionalists, or pseudo-trads, take their inspiration from Michael Gove and have a very narrow view of the purpose of education. Their over-zealous evangelizing, tendency to “troll” those who disagree with them, and to “hunt in packs,” is akin to the methodologies adopted by Nigel Farage, and his far-right UKIP, during the BREXIT referendum. Fortunately, the pseudo-trads remain something of a non-entity in the real world but that does not mean we should underestimate them. After all most liberal-minded people underestimated the dangerous fascists Nigel Farage, and more recently Donald Trump. Most worrying is the fact that some of the pseudo-trads seemingly have the ear of the Schools Minister Nick Gibb, and although their influence within the teaching profession is negligible in staff rooms across the UK, it is growing at ministerial level. We should not forget that whoever controls education shapes the world.

Fortunately, the pseudo-trad nonsense seems to the exclusive domain of the political right in the UK and hasn’t permeated into the international sector, where there is a consensus that more progressive teaching methodologies are most beneficial for students. Of course, those on the progressive end of the spectrum don’t dismiss the importance of knowledge as many “neo-trads” claim. Those who have the ability, and skill, to use a variety of teaching methodologies are not oblivious to cognitive science and are aware that knowledge underpins learning, but the imparting of knowledge, without understanding, or being taught to evaluate or synthesise, only prepares students to win pub quizzes in their adult lives. I concede that much of the 21st-century learning rhetoric is cliched but that in no way undermines the importance of the skills that are advocated. The skills of working collaboratively, thinking critically, communicating effectively, problem-solving and working creatively are not revolutionary ideas, but they underpin good pedagogical practice today as they have done for decades. Throughout my career, spanning more than two decades, I have observed that those who “can,” teach through a variety of methodologies, and seek to inspire students to a love of lifelong learning, whilst those who can’t teach fall back on the dictation of notes! Moreover, those who teach with methods advocated by pseudo-trads almost always have the most discipline problems in class and always blame the students. Perhaps they might be rather more reflective, and then they might realise that they bore their poor students and thus they are the cause of the subsequent misbehaviour!

As a Headteacher I am more than happy to see teachers utilising a variety of pedagogical styles. There is room for more the more traditional methodologies and progressive. The most versatile teacher can use an array of methodologies to ensure that the needs of all students are met. It seems ludicrous to argue that there is a “best way” to teach. Often the way a teacher plans a lesson depends upon the subject being taught, or the particular content being delivered. Students are empowered by being exposed to a variety of methodologies and exposed to life’s rich tapestry. The pseudo-trad agenda has led to a false dichotomy on edu-twitter. By being more evangelical than Ben Carson, those on the educational right, are shutting down debate and stifling creativity. There really is no one-size-fits-all approach to education and the sooner these people wake up to that reality the better.


  1. This all sounds very scary, but what actually is a pseudo-trad? I had not heard of one before. I do have colleagues with more ‘right wing’ views than me (pretty much all of them, in fact) but I’m not scared that they’re stopping me saving the next generation. Should I be?

    1. I’m not sure that it’s your job to save the next generation and it were I can’t help wonder what you might be saving them from? If you mean the scourge of a leap to the right in much of the “developed” world then we are kindred spirits!

      Pseudo-trads generally prefer to call themselves “trads” and have invented an imaginary enemy called the “progressives.” Whilst the term “progressive” isn’t new in education the idea that anyone who doesn’t extol the virtues of traditional Victorian education is a “progressive” is laughable. In my own teaching I have know qualms about utilising direct instruction, in the context of a phased/chunked lesson, but use it, and other didactic methodologies, alongside other pedagogical practices. In that I am certain my practice is similar to that of the vast majority of UK teachers and those working in international schools. There are many different methods to teach content and skills to students but I doubt there is a “best way” as the “trads” argue. Try to disagree with them on Twitter and they troll in packs in the most hostile fashion that borders on bullying. It really is unsightly.

      I do realise my post is somewhat provocative, but it makes many salient points, and sometimes one has to shout out loud to be heard above the rabble. I know that they are not all members of the far-right, but there are those among them who are on the extreme end of the political spectrum. Their lord and master is Michael Gove (whether or not the right of the Conservative party is “far right” or not is debatable) and to my mind his unholy alliance with Farage demonstrated his true colours. Some “trads” have claimed that he only lurched to the right during the Brexit debate but I don’t believe that to be the case. Moreover, when the champions of your educational ideology are Toby Young, Katharine Birbalsingh, Robert Peel and Tom Bennett it is hard to deny that there is at least some overlap with the ideology of people with what are by and large pretty right wing views!

      In the bigger scheme of things the pseudo-trads are essentially a tribe of those disgruntled whingers who occupy every staffroom but are largely ignored and tolerated by colleagues, or perhaps considered to be mavericks who do no real harm. However, Twitter has given them a collective voice that they have used remarkably effectively, and even have some influence at Ministerial level. The four “trads” I mentioned being primary examples of right wingers (whether “far right” or not is subjective) having enormous influence on the current government. Hopefully I am just paranoid but just in case I’m not then I am happy to be shot down and bullied in the interest of the future of education!

      1. Thank you for your reply- if only there were a ‘like’ button!

        I’m happy that I’ve not come up against twitter hostility of the kind you describe, being new to this whole internet-education-chatter game, though I would wager such intolerance probably exists on both sides of the trad./prog. divide you kindly define (it certainly does in my staffroom!). It sounds rather as though you and I may be in the same camp on many issues pedagogical and political, but I suppose what I was getting at in asking whether I should fear the ‘trads’ is that we do really need to try to get along with our colleagues and try to openly consider (then yes, discard if we wish) all perspectives, even if Victorian! Fight fire with water, and all that.

        Essentially, I feel your frustration, though I also fear a divided profession, especially on the grounds that things labelled ‘research’ are all good (there’s good and bad published by educationalists and it is all useless if not read critically). Equally, I have had much very useful advice from typically-older teachers who cite ‘experience’ rather than ‘evidence’ as their informant.

        Finally, and I make this statement somewhat nervously here: I suspect there are good and bad teachers in both ‘trad.’ and ‘prog.’ camps.

  2. Glad you’re happy to see teachers using a variety of styles. Many so called pseudo trads came on Twitter and started blogging because they were being criticised for certain pedagogical practices. By the way, there have been and there still are educationalists and teachers who are dismissive of knowledge. “We shouldn’t teach knowledge” – I was quite shocked the first time I heard it. But I think it was when I was told by one of these “knowledge dismissers” (who had never seen me teach), that I must be like a prison warder if I arranged desks in rows, that got me into blogging and tweeting. I had always used a variety of techniques, yet here was someone assuming that if I had desks in rows, it meant I never did anything else. I discovered there were other teachers out there who felt as I did. Before you ask, I am not a member of the Tory party and I disagreed with Gove’s introduction of performance related pay, tearing up the workforce agreement which protected classroom teachers from bullying and the idea that schools can be run like businesses. So please don’t lump us together as a bunch of right wing nut jobs. But on curriculum matters, yes, I agreed with Gove that a corrective swing was needed. And, incidentally, my experience teaching abroad is that I never found any teacher there who thought knowledge was unimportant. Yet here in the UK, it’s hard to find many school websites which mention the word in a positive manner. Maybe yours does… The biggest straw man of all is implying that until recently there were large numbers of schools which taught knowledge and nothing else.

    1. Thanks for your reply. Of course knowledge is essential to learning. In my 20something years in education I have never heard any teacher say otherwise. The motto of my school is “Knowledge, Diligence, Character.” The biggest straw man of all (to coin a phrase that pseudo-trads adore!) is that teachers don’t value knowledge! It’s a total fallacy! The point is that knowledge is only one ingredient in the recipe and does not stand alone as the only skill. I find it incredulous to think that any teacher could think otherwise.

  3. I am not sure what a pseudo trad is. However, if it is a sceptism about such things as inquiry learning and a belief in the importance of teaching knowledge then the author might group me in this category. However I do object to the belief that espousing these vies makes me right wing.
    In fact it is the opposite. What is espoused as progressive education is a appropriate for middle class , first language kids. For the poor, second language learners, etc. explicit, knowledge rich learning is what makes a difference. For me, my education approach is based on the Christian belief of a “preferential option for the poor” I carry out this practice leading arguably Australia’s most challenging school OLSH Wadeye , the largest remote indigenous school in the country.
    Teach them to read and they think very well.

  4. To Adrianfg..the ‘progressive’ enemy is NOT imaginary and as fish64 says some of us were driven here by unfounded criticisms. My school extols Guy Claxton’s BLP. We are ‘teachers first’ and are expected to teach any second subject that the head believes we can. Over recent years one tactic used against me was to find a small group of students not cut out for A level and constantly seek their ‘student voice’. Another tactic was to get non maths teachers to observe my lessons and give me threes. If I hadn’t found edublogs/edutwitter I would not have realised there was an alternative and would have continued to try to please my masters with BLP etc. Fortunately I am now leaving this school , as are many others. The progressive enemy is real and cannot be satisfied (because it also wants results!)

  5. Australian parent here. Knowledge does suffer from an image problem here in Oz. John Hattie has even remarked that too many teachers are skimping on the knowledge part and going straight to the skilling, as if they can be separated . I NEVER even see the word knowledge used on school web sties or in their brochures etc but there is a lot about inquiry and 21st C skilling. If studnets don’t have any knowledge then they are not going to be very good at applying. Also, if you look at the Aust. curriculum it is also knowledge light. The outcomes are all about what you can do with inquiry-type tasks rather than what you need to know.

    I didn’t get involved in this debate until my first child was about 3 yrs into her schooling. I was shocked as to the way kids were being taught ie find out for yourself, go and make a poster, put on a play, sit in groups and discuss a simple concept for the entire lesson. There were no textbooks just random photocopies so no sequential learning going on as teachers parachuted in and out of areas/topics on a daily basis with no chance of repetition or consolidation. There was a distinct hostility to any form of memorisation. Students no longer learnt their times table nor did they learn the standard algorithms in mathematics. the standard algorithm is not even mandated in our curriculum to my knowledge. English novels seem to me to be selected on the basis of “what might interest/titillate the students” rather then any concept of actual literary merit. History is a hotch potch with little knowledge required just repetition about interrogating sources and wasn’t even chronological. Reading was taught with mixed methods such as guess from the picture etc. Assessment at my daughter’s high school is all about projects (like posters. rap songs etc) with little to no regard for what she actually knows about a subject.

    I also object to the notion that to be a trad. you must be conservative. I’m not sure that it really matters what side of politics you are on. I’m on the Left and I’m stating this because it seems to be an important defining feature for you. I would think that those of the Left would realise that it makes sense to support a knowledge led curriculum and that teaching should largely be explicit because this best supports those who are the most disadvantaged. It continues to surprise and disappoint me that the Left don’t see this connection. If you are from the middle class you will get lots of knowledge from home and when you start to slide you will be tutored either by concerned parents or sent to a tutoring centre. It’s not so easy for the more disadvantaged.

    This is not a made up debate, it is very real. Progressive ed. has had the run of things for many decades and we have seen declines in academic achievement and behaviour. Many teachers claim they teach knowledge and use direct instruction but whenever I dig deeper they have an ideological preference for progressives methods that they were taught at Uni. They seem them as instilling deeper learning when in fact there is no evidence to support this.

  6. Also, you claim that these neo-trads are nasty & hunt in packs on Twitter. From what I’ve seen on both sides of the debate (and there really are sides who support different ways of teaching and what to teach) they obviously support each other for obvious reasons ie they tend to agree. From what I’ve seen it has been the “prog’s” who can be very hostile and abusive and even like & support this abuse. One “trad.” blogger was even shut down due to threats of exposure whist another has been threatened with a law suit. If you have evidence to the contrary please post.

  7. Lastly, where a trad. would differ from you is that I believe there really is a “best way to teach” in the majority of cases because we have lots of evidence to suggest this is correct yet you claim that there is not. So there IS a real dichotomy.

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