Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Failure of Progressive Classroom Reform: Lessons from the Curriculum Reform Implementation Project in Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Failure of Progressive Classroom Reform: Lessons from the Curriculum Reform Implementation Project in Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


Comparative education this century has included controversial elements interrogating the local cultural contexts of schools, in contrast to the universalistic claims underlying school effectiveness research and progressive education reforms in developing countries. As one of the leaders in this field has put it, 'context matters, and comparative and international research in education is especially well placed to demonstrate this' (Crossley, 2000, p. 323). Schools in many newly independent countries over the last half-century have seen competition between two main paradigms affecting teaching styles, and disagreement about the merits of Western progressive education in cultural contexts dominated by formalism (Tabulawa, 1997). Formalism and progressivism contain distinct views of what constitutes legitimate knowledge, how that knowledge should be transmitted and how it is subsequently assessed. Formalism is not compatible with the basic requirements of learner-centred methods because the teacher is the centre of the classroom rather than the student, and knowledge is for transmittal not discovery. Failure to recognise the depths of the different epistemological assumptions and educational values has generated what I have labelled the 'progressive education fallacy', which is the false premise that progressive, child-centred teaching methods are required in developing countries' primary and secondary schools to develop enquiry intellectual skills. The confusion is between the teaching process (enquiry learning) and the educational product (enquiry skills) (Guthrie, 2011, pp. 1-9, 197-202).

One outcome--exemplified by Papua New Guinea (PNG)--has been culturally inappropriate efforts to reform formalistic, teacher-centred classroom methods. In the late colonial and early post-colonial periods, PNG made progressive educational changes to overcome colonial inertia and to increase relevance to a country faced with governing itself. Since then, progressive education has been an article of educational faith followed frequently and usually uncritically, but the best evidence is that major attempts to change formalistic curriculum and teaching in primary and secondary classrooms during the last 50 years have failed despite large-scale professional, administrative and financial support (Guthrie, 2011, pp. 127-152). In particular, the 'Education Reform' (Avalos, 1992; Matane, 1986) led to attempts to introduce student-centred teaching, albeit with some official and nonofficial disagreement (Department of Education, 1991; O'Donoghue, 1994, 1995). AusAID's Curriculum Reform Implementation Project (CRIP) from 2000-06 displayed little if any awareness of the history of progressive failures, and there is little valid and reliable evidence that CRIP's progressive curriculum reform had any sustained impacts on classroom formalism. Indeed, the AusAID-commissioned CRIP Completion Report found a high risk that the reform curriculum could stall or be rejected. Official evaluations of CRIP predominantly attributed its lack of success in changing teaching styles to technical input issues (AusAID, 2009, pp. 27-36), but, more deeply, CRIP was embedded in the progressive education fallacy.

This review article summarises the cultural context of progressive reforms in PNG. It then turns to the Education Reform and CRIP's curricular role in it, compares CRIP and independent evaluations of the curriculum reform, then draws lessons from the failure of CRIP's curriculum design and evaluation strategies. The analysis concludes with some indications of the relevance of PNG's experience to other developing countries with revelatory cultures.

Cultural context

In PNG, formalism is highly consistent with a cultural paradigm in existence long before European colonisation. Formalism was reinforced by the teaching style in colonial schools and has resisted reform since because it is far more consistent with formalistic tradition than progressive Western alternatives (Guthrie, 2011, pp. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.