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 .
By 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.