Traditional education

Traditional education refers to long-established customs found in schools that society has traditionally deemed appropriate. Advocates of education reform want to promote the adoption of progressive education practices, a more holistic approach which focusses on individual students' needs and self-expression. In the eyes of reformers, traditional teacher-centered methods focussed on rote learning and memorization must be abandoned in favor of student-centered and task-based approaches to learning. However, many parents and conservative citizens are concerned with the maintenance of objective educational standards based on testing, which favors a more traditional approach.

The definition of traditional education varies greatly with geography and by historical period. In the past it has had much stronger elements of coercion than seems acceptable now in most cultures. It has sometimes included: the use of corporal punishment to maintain classroom discipline or punish errors; inculcating the dominant religion and language; separating students according to gender, race, and class, as well as teaching different subjects to girls and boys. In terms of curriculum there was and still is a high level of attention paid to time-honoured academic knowledge.

In the present it varies enormously from culture to culture, but still tends to be characterised by a much higher level of coercion than alternative education. Traditional schooling in Britain and its possessions and former colonies tends to follow the English Public School style of strictly enforced uniforms and a militaristic style of discipline. This can be contrasted with USA and Australian schools, which can have a much higher tolerance for student to teacher communication.

Here is a list of some of the areas of traditional education, and how they compare with some popular reform movements.

Instruction Centre

Topic Traditional approach Alternate approaches
Person Teacher-centred instruction:

Student-centred instruction:

Classroom Students matched by age, and possibly also by ability. All students in a classroom are taught the same material. Students dynamically grouped by interest or ability for each project or subject, with the possibility of different groups each hour of the day. Multi-age classrooms or open classrooms.
Teaching methods Traditional education emphasizes:

Progressive education emphasizes:
  • Hands-on activities
  • Student-led discovery
  • Group activities

Materials Instruction based on textbooks, lectures, and individual written assignments: What is the name and size of the nation's capitol/parliament building? Project-based instruction: Work in a small group to build a model of the nation's capitol/parliament building out of 100 toothpicks.
Subjects Individual, independent subjects. Little connection between topics

Integrated, interdisciplinary subjects or theme-based units, such as reading a story about cooking a meal and calculating the cost of the food.
Social aspects Little or no attention to social development. Focus on independent learning. Socializing largely discouraged except for extracurricular activities and teamwork-based projects.

Significant attention to social development, including teamwork, interpersonal relationships, and self-awareness.
Multiple tracks Students choose (or are steered towards) different kinds of classes according to their perceived abilities or career plans. Decisions made early in education may preclude changes later, as a student on a vo-tech track may not have completed necessary prerequisite classes to switch to a university-preparation program.

  • A single, unified curriculum for all students, regardless of ability or interest.
  • Diverse class offerings without tracking, so that students receive a custom-tailored education.
  • With School to work, academically weak students must take some advanced classes, while the college bound may have to spend half-days job shadowing at local businesses.

Student and teacher relationship Students often address teachers formally by their last names. The teacher is considered a respected role model in the community. Students should obey the teacher. Proper behavior for the university or professional work community is emphasized. In alternative schools, students may be allowed to call teachers by their first names. Students and teachers may work together as collaborators.


Topic Traditional approach Alternate approaches
Communicating with parents A few numbers, letters, or words are used to summarize overall achievement in each class. Marks may be assigned according to objective individual performance (usually the number of correct answers) or compared to other students (best students get the best grades, worst students get poor grades). A passing grade may or may not signify mastery: a failing student may know the material but not complete homework assignments, and a passing student may turn in all homework but still not understand the material.

Many possible forms of communicating achievements:
  • Teachers may be required to write personalized narrative evaluations about student achievement and abilities.
  • Under standards-based education, a government agency may require all students are required to pass a test; students who fail to perform adequately on the test may not be promoted.

Expectations Students will graduate with different grades. Some students will fail due to poor performance based on a lack of understanding or incomplete assignments. All students need to achieve a basic level of education, even if this means spending extra years in school.
Grade inflation/deflation Achievement based on performance compared to a reasonably stable, probably informal standard which is highly similar to what previous students experienced. The value of any given mark is often hard to standardize in alternative grading schemes. Comparison of students in different classes may be difficult or impossible.

Subject Areas

Topic Traditional approach Alternate approaches
Mathematics Traditional mathematics:
  • Emphasis on memorization of basic facts and step-by-step algorithms.
  • Getting the correct answer is often not sufficient: problems must often be solved in a manner similar to the textbook. Students will be told what method to use.

  • Emphasis on practical applications and hands-on illustrations.
  • Broad curriculum covers more than basic facts.
  • Appropriate mathematical reasoning ("showing your work") is graded instead of an exclusive focus on the final answer. For example, in high mathematics, students may be told the final answer to an equation, and asked to prove the answer correct.

Science Fact-based science: Science class is an opportunity to transmit concrete knowledge and specific vocabulary from the teacher (or textbook) to the students. Students focus on memorizing what they are told. "Experiments" follow cookbook-style procedures to produce the expected results. With Inquiry-based Science a student might be asked to devise an experiment to demonstrate that the earth orbits the sun. The emphasis changes from memorizing information which was learned through a scientific method to actually using the scientific method of discovery.
Language learning Phonics: The focus is on explicit training in sound to letter correspondence rules and the mechanics of decoding individual words. Students initially focus on phonics subskills and reading simplified decodable texts. When they have mastered a sufficient number of rules, they are allowed to read freely and extensively. With whole language the child is exposed to rich, relevant language which can heighten motivation to read. Learning to read is assumed to be as natural as learning to speak, so students are not formally taught sound to letter correspondences, but assumed to infer them on their own.

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