Child-centred teaching: when did it all begin?

Almost three years ago, I wrote a book entitled Progressively Worse. The first half of the book is a history of teaching methods from the 1960s to today. My thesis was that the spread of progressive education was one reason why the increases in expenditure on education over the past half-century has been met with (as far as we can tell) no improvement in pupil outcomes.

I defined progressive education as the application of individual freedom and an aversion towards adult authority to the realm of children’s education.

Many people took issue with the book’s argument, normally for one of two reasons. Either they argued progressive education is not as damaging as I claimed, or that progressive education has not come to dominate British schools since the 1960s in the way I described.

That second accusation was always far harder to counteract. Progressive education is a culture, and culture is notoriously difficult for a historian to evidence or measure. That is until the arrival of Google Ngrams Viewer.

Google Ngram Viewer is an online search engine that charts the frequency of words or phrases in an enormous corpus of printed material from 1500 to 2000. In a couple of clicks, you can chart the popularity or genealogy of a word or idea through five centuries – an astonishing historical tool. I have lost many an hour to playing around on it.

I wish that I had known about this tool when writing Progressively Worse. A simple Ngram search demonstrates the rise and rise of references to child-centred teaching methods in Britain since the mid-1960s .

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-18-34-13By way of comparison, look at the steady decline since the mid-1960s in references to the rather more traditional practice of ‘learning by heart’.


Of course, an increase in written references to child-centred teaching methods does not necessarily mean an increase in their use in the classroom. But it takes quite some leap of imagination to believe that the increased popularity evident in the Ngram Viewer had no impact on how children were taught over the past few decades.

In years to come, perhaps the mid 2010s will be seen as another turning point, when references to ‘active learning’, ‘independent learning’ and ‘learning styles’ began their gradual decline.


9 thoughts on “Child-centred teaching: when did it all begin?

  1. An academic such as yourself, though, would see a couple of problems with this analysis. You need to ensure that you have the same scale when looking at ‘learning by heart’ which would always have carried along the bottom at a similar, if slightly declining, rate.

    Equally, if you were to switch your search term from ‘learning by heart’ to ‘rote learning’ the picture, all of a sudden, looks considerably more optimistic (depending upon one’s perspective). We also know that ‘learning styles’ remain an ongoing debate, where many are taking a sledge hammer to them. These ‘negative’ expressions are counted exactly the same as ‘positive’ expressions – there simply is know way of knowing without reading all of these books.


    1. Yes, all fair challenges. References in texts cannot be taken as a proxy for popularity for that reason. The phrase ‘drill and kill’ has been in steady ascendancy since 1984, but obviously not due to its increased popularity! I do think, however, that ‘rote learning’ is a phrase most often used in the pejorative, whereas ‘learning by heart’ is often used by supporters of memorization – but that is just a hunch.

      I liked your suggestion of typing in Wilberforce and Equiano by the way. Very revealing – will have to show to my Y9 pupils.


    2. “We also know that ‘learning styles’ remain an ongoing debate, where many are taking a sledge hammer to them” – my understanding is they have been thoroughly debunked, have there been new studies showing evidence for them?


  2. Have you read Larry Cuban on the difficulty reformers have always had influencing classroom teaching? (I’m thinking both of “How Teachers Taught” and “Tinkering Towards Utopia.”) A consistent finding here in the US is that reformers are effective at impacting education rhetoric but have had much less success impacting the classroom.

    It seems to me that with NGRAM you’re taking a look only at rhetoric, which we have good reason to doubt as a proxy for what’s happening in the classroom.

    That said, to the extent that progressivism is a culture, it probably does have more to do with rhetoric than what’s actually happening in the classroom.

    If I had a guess, I’d guess that progressivism was on the rise since the 1960s in secondary classrooms, but that’s too late of a start for its influence on elementary classrooms. But admittedly I have more reading to do here.

    PS there’s a fascinating history (“Learning to Heal”) about medical education, and at the turn of the century medical educators pioneered nearly all the “progressive” techniques and rhetoric. Progressivism about teaching happened first in medical education, it seems to me.


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