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Progressive teaching -> regressive learning?

In the last couple of years, Michael Gove has urged teachers to stop using new practices in the classrooms and return to more traditional, academic teaching methods. In this respect, he is going against the tide. In many countries, the idea of progressive teaching methods has gained traction among policymakers, who have begun to introduce them en masse. In their new paper ('The distributional impacts of a universal school reform on mathematical achievements: a natural experiment from Canada'), economists Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre, and Philip Merrigan provide strong evidence that Gove might indeed be right in emphasising traditional teaching. In the early 2000s, Quebec implemented an ambitious, universal school reform, which completely revised teaching methods in the province. The reform ‘relied on a socio-constructivist teaching approach focused on problem-based and self-directed learning supported by flexible teachers. This approach moved teaching away from the traditional/academic approaches of memorization, repetition, and activity books, to a much more comprehensive approach focused on learning in a contextual setting in which children are expected to find answers for themselves’. The study is the first to analyse a universal reform of teaching methods in this way. The authors use a so-called ‘difference-in-difference’ method – and a slightly different version of the method – to study the effects of the reform on maths achievement and behavioural skills. The method compares pupil achievement in Quebec with pupil achievement in other Canadian provinces, prior and after the reform, while also holding constant pupil and family characteristics. By doing so, they can partial out other effects that are just the result of other changes that have nothing to do with the reform. The authors’ findings are striking: the impact of the progressive teaching methods is strongly negative for maths achievement in most grades. As one would expect, the impact is also generally increasing the more time pupils have spent in the new teaching regime. The negative effects also accrue to pupils across the achievement distribution, so there is little evidence that progressive teaching methods are good for some pupils and bad for others. The effects on the domestic measure of achievement are also backed up by analyses of TIMSS and PISA scores. But did the reform have any positive effects on ‘soft’ skills? Well, no. On the contrary, the authors find that the reform had mostly negative effects, although many estimates are not statistically significant. But in grades 5-6 and 7-8, the impact is strongly negative for hyperactivity, anxiety, physical aggression, interpersonal competencies, and emotional quotient. In grades 9-10, the impact is also negative for pro-social behaviour, physical aggression, and property offense. The evidence therefore suggests that the effect was negative both in terms of maths achievement and behavioural outcomes. Overall, the study, which appears very strong, suggests that across-the-board moves toward progressive teaching methods may have strong negative effects on achievement. Previous studies, which do not utilise as strong a methodology, back up these findings although the effects are not as conspicuous. The fact that behavioural outcomes worsen as well suggests that these teaching methods are not good for ‘soft’ skills either. The policy conclusion is clear: stay away from broad-based changes in teaching methods that are not based on proper research. Gabriel H. Sahlgren This comment piece first appeared as the Editor's Pick in the first trial issue of the CMRE Research Digest (April 2014). The piece reviews a paper by economists Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre, and Philip Merrigan, 'The distributional impacts of a universal school reform on mathematical achievements: a natural experiment from Canada' appearing in Economics of Education Review (in press). The original version of the paper may be downloaded here. You can download free copies of back issues of the CMRE Monthly Research Digest here. to subscribe.

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