The 3 Rs

The Failure of Progressive Educational Methods

01.07.13 3:46 PM ET

In the current issue of the UK magazine Standpoint, secondary-school history teacher Matthew Hunter amusingly describes how progressive educational methods have failed students:

[I]nstead of learning through listening to teachers or reading books, pupils are expected to do so through projects. It did not take me long to work out why pupils are so ignorant of British history, despite spending over a year studying it (as laid down by the national curriculum). To study the Norman Conquest, pupils would re-enact the Battle of Hastings in the playground, conduct a classroom survey to create their own Domesday Book, and make motte-and-bailey castles out of cereal boxes. Medieval England would be studied through acting out the death of Thomas Becket, and creating a boardgame to cover life as a medieval peasant. For the Industrial Revolution, pupils pitched inventions to Dragons' Den and lessons on the British Empire culminated in the design of a commemorative plate showing whether it was or was not a "force for good".

Such tasks allow pupils to learn about history in an enjoyable and engaging way—or so the theory goes. In reality, all content and understanding of the past is sucked out, and the classroom begins to resemble the playground. An unfortunate side-effect is that pupils are frequently confused by the inevitable anachronisms involved in making history "relevant". "Sir, how many Victorians would have had a TV?" I was asked.