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Progressive Education Works—But Only for Those Who Need The System Least

In the latest OECD student-evaluation rankings, Australia performed dismally. Average benchmark PISA test results for the country’s 15-year-old students have declined more since 2003 than those for any other developed country except Finland. In mathematics proficiency, Australian students are now below the OECD average. And they are a full year behind in scientific and reading literacy compared with those who sat the test two decades ago.

Of course, PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is not the only measure of progress. And outperforming other countries is not the goal of our education system. According to a 2008 declaration from the country’s Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, the real goal is that “all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens,” so as to produce a “democratic, equitable and just society…that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse, and that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures as a key part of the nation’s history, present and future.”

But notice that these are social goals, not educational standards. Unsurprisingly, Australia has gradually been injecting politically progressive ideas into its teaching and learning methods, sometimes without regard for whether they actually help children read, write, perform math or know important facts. My experience as an educator in different parts of the country has given me an understanding of the main themes and techniques now being advanced.

For instance, progressive educators believe that children learn most naturally when encouraged to pursue their own interests. They believe that learning consists primarily of the acquisition of skills rather than knowledge. A progressive educator teaches children how to read, but avoids telling them what to read. There are a lot of art-based, play-based and project-based activities, often done in some kind of collaborative context.

As San Francisco-based education professor Stanley Pogrow wrote in 2006, progressive educators tend to have “high ideals…supported by poetic visions and lofty rhetoric…they feel that all children will learn spontaneously at very high levels as long as you use individualised, ‘child-centred’ approaches…No value is seen in rote learning or automaticity of skills, and worksheets, textbooks, standards, formal phonics, texts, scripted programs, etc., are viewed as evil.”

To be sure, that is not an apt description of the Australian education system. We recognize that there are some things kids do need to know, whether they are interested or not. We have a national curriculum. But we also consider their social and emotional needs as unique individuals undergoing self-development in diverse contexts. Our system works on a pendulum that swings back and forth between traditionalism and progressivism. Students learn multiplication tables and read set texts. But they also build bridges with Lego and talk about empathy.

I got into the more progressive side of the system seven years ago. At the time, I was sceptical of the traditional side, preferring to design programs for schools in Sydney that addressed curricular outcomes through art and play. My programs enriched student experience, promoted a connection with nature, developed their creative faculties, and fostered a sense of belonging.

For example, in 2018 I ran a six-week program involving 175 primary students at a public school in Sydney’s gentrified Inner West area. Our goal—to build a “Trash Orchestra” using recycled materials—exemplified the progressive approach. Weekly sessions involved games, stories and open-ended making. During one session, we played a listening game in which students geospatially represented found sounds on maps of the playground. When the instruments were finished, the students recorded an album of original music with the help of two professional contemporary musicians. Engagement was off the charts. Feedback from teachers and parents was overwhelmingly positive.

But looking back, I realize these children all lived in privileged neighbourhoods. Their parents were mostly university-educated professionals. They could appreciate this kind of progressive education project because they knew that through a combination of enriched home life and value placed on formal education, their children were also learning the basics. My “Trash Orchestra” project wasn’t replacing the three Rs. It was complementing them.

Shortly thereafter, I decided to broaden my personal and professional horizons by moving to a more remote location. Cut to Alice Springs, a town of 25,000 in the middle of Australia, 1,500 kilometres from the nearest major city. Alice (as it’s known) is surrounded by a vast desert punctuated by cattle stations, water holes, sacred Indigenous sites, old missionary artifacts, and some of the most beautiful walking tracks in the world. It is also home to some of the most marginalised people in Australia.

About a fifth of the town’s population are of Aboriginal descent, heirs to the Indigenous societies that have been decimated by European newcomers since the 18th century. Two of the first anthropologists to arrive in the area, Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen, reported more than a century ago that the arrival of white people undermined the “strict moral code” of Indigenous groups: “The old men see with sorrow that the younger ones do not care for the time-honoured traditions of their fathers, and refuse to hand them on to successors who, according to their ideas, are not worthy to be trusted with them.” We may live in a more enlightened time, but the damage done to Indigenous Australian societies remains severe.

Half of the Indigenous people in Alice are unemployed, and 72 percent live in town camps—government-housing enclaves that formerly were the only places that Indigenous people in Alice were permitted to live. Only 40 percent of the local Indigenous population aged 20 to 24 has completed high school. At night, groups of youths as young as eight wander the streets until the early hours, at which point they return to homes that are disproportionately plagued by domestic violence.

Complicating the demographics is the roughly 20 percent of town residents who are recent immigrants, having been incentivised by the government’s resettlement policy to live in regional and remote areas. Most come from North Africa, the Philippines, India and Nepal. Two-fifths of the town’s residents speak a language other than English. (Alice is one of the few places in Australia where Indigenous people still speak their own language at home.) Life in this town often feels like a complex, historically significant, multicultural experiment, which in turn attracts a lot of well-meaning and well-educated professionals from wealthier parts of the country. They serve as social workers, lawyers, medical professionals, community developers and educators. Most, like me, are eager to honour and amplify the traditions of diverse peoples—including through the advancement of progressive education methods.

Which is where the problem arises. These professionals are highly educated, but many students in Alice Springs schools don’t yet have the tools they need to learn at a high level. Studies show the performance gap between these communities and more privileged areas is getting wider. And hyper-progressive education methods that receive so much acclaim from upper-middle-class parents aren’t always suitable for children struggling with the basics.

Take, for example, an Indigenous child I’ll call Mike (though the anonymized details that follow could apply to many children I’ve met). He is 12, but reads at a level that precludes him from understanding chapter books. He attends school most days, but on reduced hours for bad behaviour. When he does attend, Mike spends most of his time one-on-one with an assistant teacher, labouring over a maths worksheet or playing basketball. He is intelligent, and dreams of playing professional sports one day. But that dream is entirely unrealistic. Mike spent his early childhood in group homes, and now lives with his mother and a man who isn’t his father. Neither of these adults finished high school, and both are unemployed. Mike says that school is irrelevant to him because it’s really just for white people. He spends his afternoons riding his bike and his nights wandering the streets.

Educators at Mike’s school are trying to create a place that accommodates his needs. They want him to feel like an empowered agent in his psychosocial development. So the school invests time, money and training in new approaches designed to empower children like Mike to pursue their interests through, for instance, literacy and numeracy courses linked to environmental education and creative arts. Ninety percent of the students at Mike’s school are Indigenous, so its approach is steeped in the language of diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, daily attendance hovers somewhere between 60  and 70 percent.

That progressive education approaches produce lower test scores is uncontroversial. Pogrow (himself a progressive educator) acknowledges as much. So, too, does University of Virginia Professor Emeritus E.D. Hirsch in his 2016 book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories. This also has been reported by European education expert Paul Kirschner in ResearchED, and summarized here in Quillette by Australian scholar Greg Ashman.

In Sydney, this was difficult to see. For the most part, those kids did just fine. If anything, a little open-ended creative expression was a welcome break from the programmed routine of their safe and healthy lives. On one occasion, during a long-term program at an elite independent school in the city’s North Shore area, a parent told me that my program had changed her daughter’s life. She was behind her peers in literacy and numeracy, and found it difficult to concentrate. She felt dejected and often complained about being stupid. The chance to express herself for a couple of hours per week over the course of four years helped her see herself in a more positive light. These are the kind of stories that champions of progressive education like to tell and retell.

On balance, she will still grow up less educated than the other students in her cohort. But compared to Mike, she will be better off—not because I showed her she could write poems, but because, culturally, she recognizes the path taken by her parents, both of whom have business degrees and work in advertising. She will see her mission as one of independent civic participation, because she will simply inherit that mission from her parents and community. For Mike, acquiring that mindset would require considerable good fortune and a basic foundation in literacy and numeracy. He doesn’t need to make music from garbage. He needs to learn to read and write.

I agree with progressive educators that PISA results aren’t the be-all and end-all of educational attainment. But even by the measure of our stated social goals, standards are deteriorating in places like Alice Springs. The way we are thinking about education is increasingly one-sided, and often reflects the experiences and biases of privileged people living in privileged communities. If equity and justice are really what we want, then it’s time to let the policy pendulum swing the other way.


Daniel Silver is a writer living in Alice Springs. He can be reached at

Featured images: Volunteers exhibit drawings created by aboriginal students through the Sydney: Art & Sketch program and the Go Foundation.


  1. Smart kids doing well in a crappy system doesn’t mean that the crappy system isn’t crappy.

  2. Not going to do Mike any good if there are no jobs even IF he obtains basic literacy. If folks don’t see a path, that is demoralizing and removes hope.

  3. As usual, the person on the ground actually dealing with the problems of their work is best-placed to deal with those problems as they see fit, rather than having to rely on a single centralised policy designed by experts who’ve never actually done that job.

    That’s why Bob Katter supports

    “The provision of title deeds providing ownership of homes, businesses and farms – a right enjoyed by every other Australian and most people on Earth. Such deeds to be inalienable – that is, cannot be sold to non-community residents – otherwise they are simple, ordinary freehold title. This privately owned title deed is essential for the foundation of an economy or even any economic activity.”

    If people own their land, they can improve it by growing things, or they can build a business on it, and in either case employ themselves or others. Having it held communally gives you the same results communal ownership always does, like communist collective farms: miserable poverty.

    As with teachers, so with aboriginals and everyone else: autonomy in how they do their jobs and live their lives tends to make things better over time. This has been demonstrated by study after study, but is rejected by ideology.

  4. Alice is one of the few places in Australia where Indigenous people still speak their own language at home

    Indeed, we have articulate and dignified mission-educated Aboriginal grand parents (fluent English speakers, all) in their 60’s and 70’s despairing of their illiterate and innumerate children (ie. 50 years old) and grand children. The kids speak the local languages by default because they rarely go to school. Everyone gets a pass for indigenous ceremonies, which could be a funeral with a 800km round-trip.

    How, on God’s green earth, is it possible for indigenous people to be going backward like this?

  5. Canada has a similar situation. The natives are bound to a reservation system where the land is not owned. With similar results I might add. Of course there are other mitigating circumstances that have bound them to a system guaranteed to produce resentment, violence and despair.

    I see the solution as greater autonomy, but that would disenfranchise a whole industry that has grown around the current system and that includes the leadership of the natives themselves. So that is a no go. This will undoubtedly continue until the natives realize that their greatest impediment is their willingness to be dependent upon the system and political opportunists that claim to be “helping” them.

  6. Well, I’m a pragmatist. It’s worth trying all sorts of things.

    A Labor government brought in communal ownership because that’s their ideology, and because it took out the States between the Federal and Council governments, allowing the Federal government to legislate and fund the councils directly, aka a power grab. It also means that government and the courts can decide who they will and won’t recognise as the legitimate council, so for example if the land council objects to a coal mine, they can just find another mob who’ll take a cash handout to be recognised as the “real” council; this is how the Adani coal mine went ahead over the objections of a vast majority of local Aboriginals.

    Aboriginals here have had communal land ownership for more than 30 years in most jurisdictions, and the mortality, education, wealth and imprisonment rate gaps are bigger than ever. I’d say that communal ownership has had a fair go and not proven itself, so let’s try autonomy; this would include private freehold, with the inalienability clause Katter mentioned so that they don’t just sell the land off to developers or something.

    Liberal-National governments have brought in things like the cashless debit card, so that half of any benefits paid could only be spent on groceries, etc. This has only been going for a few years but has already shown itself not to work well. There are some communities where the locals support it, mostly because they have alcohol problems; but I think there are other solutions for that. Again, let’s try autonomy.

    Both parties are authoritarian, in that they believe we don’t know what’s good for us and need their wise guidance. This applies to all parts of society, but Aboriginals are the first target of it, because Australia is a racist country so most people won’t care what happens to them, and because Aboriginals as a whole have it worse off here, giving an excuse for government to control them “for their own good.”

    There’s an old racist joke which is also an anti-racist joke. “How do you stop a [black person] from drowning? Take your foot off his neck.”

  7. A common phenomena in education systems that push Whole Word on all pupils (rather than just those with dyslexia, in the name of equal outcomes and inclusion), is that of the parent summoned into school and told off, because they are teaching their child phonics (or ‘sounding out’), when they listen to them read at night. This is because intuitively, teachers begin to realise that phonics is the better system for around 90% of kids, as they see kids who are taught phonics begin to advance more quickly than their peers. Indeed, it’s one of the major foundations of the somewhat mythical belief that only 30% of educational achievement are based in the school, and is symptomatic of a far larger problem.

    Education needs to be as knowledge-rich as possible, from day one. This task is somewhat complicated by the fact that from four years onwards, children need to learn to become sociable and reciprocal in their interaction as quickly as possible, as the link between anti-social kids and those who end up in prison, is pretty much incontrovertible and pretty much irrevocable through intervention. But didactic styles of education, cramming in as much knowledge as possible as their little heads can fit should be the top priority, beyond the need to learn how to get on with others. This doesn’t mean kids should be “all work and no play”, because research shows that knowledge-intensive activities should be spaced, instead of crammed, but it does create an imperative to try to build as much knowledge as possible, as early as possible.

    The reason for this is simple, beyond a certain age our ability to learn slows significantly. Most of us realise this as we get older, but what we don’t realise is just how much our ability to learn has slowed somewhat before we even hit puberty, because we lacked the self-awareness at that age. This makes it vital to inculcate as many foundations of knowledge schema, as early as possible. Maths basics and a foundational knowledge of reading are absolutely essential during this period. This casts indoctrination-style reading materials, especially those focused on rewriting biological realities, through gender neutral or gender opposite socialisation in an incredibly harmful light, as reading engagement is key to developing an interest in independent reading. Early learning resources should be devoted to cultivating interest, even if boys end up reading about war, and girls gravitate towards gender typical interests. This is somewhat demonstrated in this article by Medium:

    This may sound as though the argument that we lose our ability to become fluent in another language by 10 is somewhat flawed, but I wanted to present a strong counterargument to my claim. But generally it is still the case that early learning of second languages shows better results. But as anyone familiar with demographic movement by age, will tell you that there is a significant bias towards higher placement in the cognitive spectrum as people learn languages later, with younger language learners more representative of the population as a whole. So in many ways we are comparing apples to oranges, with the results skewing in favour of younger, but somewhat less gifted, learners.

    This OECD provides some background:

    Whilst this site provides a somewhat detailed practical example of how an understanding of knowledge schema, can have real world applications:

    I would especially recommend the latter for teachers.

    Generally though, I believe that on balance, we need to rethink the liberal approach to education, especially when it comes to the somewhat confusing, but also overlapping distinction between progressive education and progressive politics. Of course, better resourced schools in every community would be a boon for any country wealthy enough to pay for it all. But there are plenty of ways that education has suffered because of the liberal aversion to conservative thinking, just as Policing and Criminal Justice Systems have suffered as a result of an out-of-hand rejection of liberal thinking, without first sifting their lofty-minded assertions for any useful practical innovations. Most critical thinking benefits hugely from the contest of ideas that diversity of thought brings to the table.

    The key is understanding that unless we focus on knowledge formation in kids as early as possible, then no amount of benign intervention at the University level, will correct for poorly calibrated educational environments when younger. Damage done early on is largely irremediable, although on an individual basis, there is always the potential for hidden cognitive potential. Above all, we need strict low-level discipline systems which ensures undisrupted knowledge-rich learning throughout primary and secondary education. Within our current systems, some kids will have lost around two years worth of learning time, by the time they leave school- to problems which schools working with parents and communities, could easily solve.

  8. I generally agree with this however, I’m unsure of how you’re using the term “liberal”. I know a lot of both young and older males now in their 30’ who never learned correctly because the entire education system (at least here in the US) is essentially geared toward female learning. They hold positions that make serious money (head coaches of big sports schools; etc)I never had an issue with this but a LOT of my male friends did; specifically in certain subjects. And they (boys) still have those issues today - but no one cares.

  9. You are right, but the problem is that those progressives who care so much for the oppressed, least of all want to see them as their neighbors.

  10. Another classic Quillette article - the writer, who is part of the problem, bemoans his compatriots, who are even more of the problem. Primary school kids have nothing better to do than bang on trash cans? Creativity does not come from the classroom - you’re born with it. Reading, writing and computing can be taught - to some degree. Creativity - and s’self-esteem’ cannot. Quillette’s most common prescription for society seems to be ‘a little less poison.’

  11. @Geary_Johansen

    Indeed. And let me underscore why: basic education is the gateway to further education and I don’t particularly mean tertiary or higher education in the sense of post-high school credentials or even a high school diploma. Reading and writing passably well opens huge possibilities for learning which and allowing kids to avoid learning those skills is the single greatest disservice we could do them. Proficiency in arithmetic and basic algebra is similar, remember accountancy is advanced arithmetic even if electrical and mechanical engineering requires higher maths. Applied arithmetic (including percentages and simple probability) is best taught through loan agreements, tax declarations, home economics, budgeting, business proposals etc. The practical can also be “enriching” and indeed enlightening of the world around you.

    This topic is typically missing from articles, written by credentialed teachers regarding (public) education by credentialed teachers where the purpose of education is conflated with gaining credentials in order to gain more credentials. This article exhibits this less so, the author has become a bit more self-aware, realising that it’s better to teach something well with guaranteed reusability, at least, such as the basics, than fail to teach much at all through focusing on teaching such things as creativity etc. while letting the basics slide.

    As far as making learning enjoyable goes, first remember that its enjoyable to learn how to do almost anything really well but not much fun to learn something only half-assed.

    regarding the socialisation process inherent in both education and coming of age, learning that you must in fact attend school almost all the time and not prevent others from learning and practicing when there is a mjor step towards being able either to hold down a job or do much of anything else useful across time as an adult. Teaching them the reverse instead, that not putting in the time and disrupting others is just fine is really inculcating some seriously self-defeating behaviours.

    I think this has dawned on the author even if he comes from the view of taking the basics for granted while working on “cultural enrichment.” If he wants to teach them the joys of music in a social setting then better to put on performances in the school auditorium and local venues; the production requiring the learning of setting up sound and light systems, video and audio recording and editing plus marketing with advance and on-site ticket sales with the accounting those require. And do it very frequently so they actually get quite good at it.

    I guarantee they’ll find other things to do with this knowledge outside of school (including the social organisation to create an event) but what that is will be unpredictable because that’s where the real creativity comes in: once they have the interlocking knowledge to do certain things, they’ll dream up new things to do with that knowledge.

  12. I don’t understand why they should not have the right to sell their land to whoever they please? Why do you think they should get the rights that everyone else has when it comes to their land, except the right to sell the land to who they want? I really have a problem with the idea of limiting who they can sell the land to.

    We have a problem like this in South Africa, we provide people with land on a 10 year lease, then they own it. You are not allowed to rent out your property or sell it for 10 years. However in an area with severely limited employment opportunities, sometimes the best option is to sell your land and use the capital to move to an area with far better employment prospects. Not allowing someone this option essentially traps them in an economic backwater because either they can keep their most valuable possession or move somewhere they actually have a chance to get a good job. I can only imagine the awful choice where you are offered a job somewhere, but in order to take the job you have to give up your most valuable asset.

  13. Well, I surveyed the above and it’s nice to see, even if I can’t read it all.

    My experience mirrors Daniel’s fairly closely but I don’t find even the average inner city kid with relatively affluent parents does well in progressive education.

    And the really scary thing is how many teachers, when confronted with the demoralising failure we experience, will ever turn the blame on the teaching methods they were taught. There’s so many other things to blame they usually double down on the “child-centred”* dream.

    I think we (ResearchED) are winning. But that means we go from 1% adherents to 3%. That’s not enough to advocate a sensible policy anywhere…

    *Hot tip: If the teaching method sounds like a motherhood statement you couldn’t possibly disagree with, it’s progressive, or more accurately 200 year old debunked Rousseu.

  14. A teacher used to teaching upper income, well-behaved white and Asian kids will have a nervous breakdown trying to teach destitute, disruptive Aboriginal kids. It’s not the teachers that are the problem so much as the families, administration, and curriculum.

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