My first experience spending time in schools in sub-Saharan Africa was in the early 1990s. While an undergraduate at Harvard, I studied for a semester in Zimbabwe and had the opportunity to observe, teach, and collect research data in rural secondary schools there. It was almost two decades before I returned to the continent, this time as an education professor invited to share some of my U.S.-based research on secondary literacy with colleagues working in schools in Kenya. What struck me during my visits to rural Kenyan schools was how little things had changed. Despite all of the time, money, energy, and international influence exerted to support progressive educational reforms, the teaching that I observed in classrooms in 2011 in Kenya was strikingly similar to what I had observed in 1992 in Zimbabwe. Certainly there were differences in national curricula and examinations, and the intervening years had seen a significant increase in the percentage of students who were able to attend school and reduced the gender gap; but the dynamic between teacher and students, focus on memorization of content, recitation of information, call and response style of questioning, and ever present pressure of examinations remained largely unchanged. What, I wondered, had happened to the much-promoted efforts to move toward a more progressive educational approach? Were my anecdotal observations an aberration, or were they reflective of a larger phenomenon? And what might the apparent consistency – or intransigence, depending on your perspective – in instructional approach mean for educational opportunity for students, teachers, and communities?
Gerard Guthrie has spent 45 years exploring similar questions as an education professor and researcher specializing in teaching styles in developing countries. His latest book, Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame (Routledge, 2018), offers an unequivocal response. Guthrie argues strongly that progressive education reforms have not worked, that they are inappropriate, and that they should be rejected in favor of working to strengthen teaching and learning within a more formalistic approach. He asserts, “Attempts to replace formalistic teaching with progressive styles have two major issues: they are usually culturally inappropriate, and they usually fail” (4).In an extensive review of the research literature, Guthrie provides clear evidence that fifty years of progressive educational reform efforts – which he defines as working to move toward a more learner-centered approach – have largely failed to change classroom teaching practices. Both in general descriptions and through in-depth case studies focused on China, Africa, and Papua New Guinea, Guthrie describes the failure of progressive reforms and offers insights into the reasons for the failure. Rather than criticize the often-blamed ‘lack of resources’ or ‘systems that are resistant to change’ or ‘teacher intransigence’ for reform failures, Guthrie places the blame squarely on the cultural hegemony of the reforms themselves. He argues that the priorities and expectations that guide progressive educational reforms are inconsistent with the traditional and current values of many of the cultures and communities where they are being imposed. In the conclusion of a chapter focused on progressive educational reform failures in Africa he writes the following:
“In Africa, as elsewhere, the profound reason for formalism’s continuing prevalence is that classroom behaviours are intuitively influenced by teachers’, students’ and parents’ intergenerational beliefs about the nature of knowledge, how it should be transmitted, and their perceptions of the goals of schooling… Rather than an intermediary ‘stage’ on the path to educational development, formalism is likely to remain in African classrooms because it is a symbiotic part of traditional and current culture.” (118)
Guthrie calls researchers to account for the failure to recognize and address the root causes of the failures of progressivism. He argues that researchers have treated progressivism as “a value proposition to be implemented rather than a theory to be judged on the evidence” (20). Too often, according to Guthrie, researchers fault the apparent shortcomings of the reform’s implementation, rather than question the value and appropriateness of the reform itself. The weight of many decades of Western-style progressive reforms has resulted in progressivism becoming “an intellectual cage distorted by culture-bound value judgments and frequently blind to the cultural imperialism in which it is embedded” (23).
If we are to move forward, to better utilize resources and value the communities and societies within which schools operate in order to strengthen learning outcomes and educational opportunities, Guthrie argues that it is necessary to leave progressivism behind and embrace a formalistic frame. He asserts that formalism, or teacher-centered instructional practice, is more consistent with the “revelatory epistemologies” (19) found in many developing countries and efforts to improve education are more likely to have impact if they are built within the formalistic frame rather than trying, unproductively and inappropriately, to move teachers and schools toward a progressive approach. He writes, “The opportunity is to take culturally intuitive fomalistic teaching styles and develop them further, instead of trying unproductively to push teachers and students to adopt progressive methods are are counter-intuitive to them” (162).
I read an electronic manuscript of Dr. Guthrie’s book that he sent me as a preview following a correspondence we had about an article that I had written. My initial response was head nodding agreement. Yes, many of the progressive reform efforts in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere have been built on faith in their inherent value rather than being grounded in empirical evidence of stronger learning outcomes. Yes, too often analyses of the shortcomings of reforms fail to recognize the importance of context and are written through a Western-centric lens. Yes, we need to better understand the values and priorities of existing systems and practices before we work to “improve” those systems and practices, particularly if we are entering the community as outsiders. I believed during that early read, and still believe today, that Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame calls on all of us to take an important step back to question the underlying assumptions that we as policy makers, reformers, researchers, and practitioners make when undertaking efforts at educational improvement.
However, during my more recent, more in-depth read of a hard copy of the text, I found myself jotting questions in the margins and on scraps of paper that challenge the frame that the book sets up. Does it have to be teacher centered versus student centered? Don’t good teachers regardless of context shift approaches depending on the instructional goals, the needs of students, and the demands of the curriculum? Do we – as researchers, policy makers, advocates – want to set a priority of a particular way of teaching or do we want to focus more on establishing broader learning goals and trusting local experts – teachers, school leaders, students, communities – to determine how best to meet those goals? Is culture static? If not, if cultures and contexts change over time, then who is best positioned to evolve instructional practices to meet the changing expectations of students and values of the community? How do we get better at trusting teachers to have the expertise to best meet the needs of their students and respond to the particulars of their context?
Most of these questions emerged as I read the first two-thirds of the book, the section that critiqued the “progressive cage”. I was wary, given the title, that Guthrie would replace the limiting construct of progressivism with the limiting construct of formalism without acknowledging that teaching approaches don’t need to be limited to a binary, and oppositional, choice.
I should have known better. In the final third of the book, in his description of the formalistic frame, Guthrie presents a nuanced understanding of the complexity of teaching and rightly acknowledges the variation that can exist within a more teacher-centered environment. He notes that formalism is “not necessarily as narrow as it is often supposed” (161) and notes that some teachers in a formalistic setting adopt a more student-centered approach if they determine that it is appropriate for the particular content being taught. To me, the most compelling chapter in thinking about the way forward focuses on the Teaching Styles Model (Chapter 10). Here Guthrie lays out a continuum of five different instructional approaches from “Authoritarian” to “Democratic” (208) describing the observable dimensions of each without placing value judgements on their merits. He writes, “Different teaching styles are not better or worse than each other, only more or less appropriate, so that progress may well be a case of improving within a style” (23). He further notes that the approaches are not fixed and that teachers have agency to vary in their approaches based on specifics of student needs, instructional goals, and community context. He writes, “my personal view is that the best teachers can use any or all of these styles, separately or in combination, as the situation warrants” (209).
The dichotomous frame that Guthrie provides – Progressive Cage versus Formalistic Frame – pushes readers to question whether the assumption that we’ve operated under for the past fifty years, that progressive reform is universally desirable, is appropriate. The book offers a strong and effective critique against that assumption and challenges policy makers, reformers, researchers, and practitioners to consider a new approach. It is important, however, that readers look carefully at the nuance in Guthrie’s description of the formalistic frame if we are to find a way forward that is more respectful of and responsive to the strengths, needs, and priorities of teachers, students, and communities. Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame is an important book that anyone engaged in international educational improvement efforts should take the time to read.
Citation: Guthrie, G. (2018). Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame. New York, NY: Routledge.