Progressive Discourse

As a wicked problem, the process of education—and thus the planning for education—appears different depending on many personal and societal factors that influences one’s perspective. (Stakeholder groups are commonly identified to categorize those with different perspectives on education; but that does not capture the individualized nature of one’s perspective, nor does the term recognize the different perspectives of different individuals placed in the same stakeholder group.) As a result, the decision-making and planning processes related to education, including curriculum and instruction, can be highly politicized. Political problems are resolved by debate and discussion and, frequently, compromise. Political discussion and debate can be driven entirely by opinion; no participant is compelled to be accurate in the arguments being made and any interpretation of evidence is permitted. While curriculum and instruction is subject to political processes, it is fundamentally different from other political process because education is a technology. Because education is an application of the natural phenomenon of human learning, participants resolving curriculum and instruction problems must hold accurate and true (or as nearly so as learning sciences can provide) beliefs about that phenomenon. In this situation, discourse is more appropriate than debate or discussion.

Discourse is differentiated from debate or dialog by a number of features. First, discourse is typically done with the purpose of establishing “fact.” Scientists who seek to reconcile unexpected experimental results will engage in discourse when deciding if the results are due to errors or if the results represent a challenge to accepted theory. Second, there is a structure to the discourse. In science, this structure is provided by the theory that is currently informing education. For education in the 21st century, the structure is provided by frameworks such as was presented in “A Framework for 21st Century Classrooms.” Third, the participants in a discourse play different roles in the community, and frequently those roles include a hierarchy and differing levels of authority or expertise. In the educational planning, discourse on ICT decisions may occur among administrators, teachers, parents, and students, some participants are more empowered than others and those relationships can influence individuals’ participation in discourse. While differing levels of authority may bias individuals’ participation in discourse, the process is intended to assist in each understanding the meaning of the topic from the perspective of others.

Carl Bereiter (2002), an educational psychologist, describes discourse as a scientific process fundamental to his profession. Within the structure of discourse, Bereiter claims, psychologists can “converse, criticize one another’s ideas, suggest questions for further research, and—not least—argue constructively about their differences” (86). Discourse, then, must be organized around knowledge and ideas in discourse are interpreted in light of that knowledge. For Bereiter, successful planning in education depends on discourse, but with variation that he refers to as progressive discourse, which includes six characteristics: conceptual artifacts, improvement, common understanding, expanding fact, a specific role for criticism, and nonsectarianism.

Conceptual Artifacts

Progressive discourse begins with a well-established definition of specific actions that are described by the words being used; in terms of informatics, the actions in the social systems must be encoded in the information layer. An example of conceptual artifacts is seen in the definitions of problematic and idealistic realizations of the dimensions that comprise the framework presented in the previous chapter. The actions in each realization form conceptual artifacts. A well-defined conceptual artifact prevents stakeholders from applying a too broad definition to the idealized realization.

Once everyone involved in the discourse understands the social actions that embody the conceptual artifact and can recognize when the labels are applied accurately or inaccurately to the classroom, the conceptual artifact has become reified (a “thing” that can be recognized, but not held) and it then can be applied to creating working hypotheses can be defined and planning can proceed. Until the reification of the idea for the group, the different participants may be planning for quite different activities but using the same language to define it.


All conceptual artifacts are incomplete and can be improved and the purpose of progressive discourse is to improve those concepts. It is also assumed the actions embodied in the concepts can be made better through the actions of the group. For educators implementing the framework, classroom practice lies between the problematic and idealistic realizations and can always be refined and further idealized. All aspects of the conceptual artifact (e.g. how it is measured, the conditions that lead to improvements, and who judges the improvements) are all subject to discourse. Especially when progressive discourse is focused on wicked problems, the focus on improvement can extend to various causes and previously unrecognized relationships that influence the perceived value of the solution to subpopulations.

Common Understanding

In political discussions, it is often desired that participants agree. Reaching agreement frequently requires a group to comprise. In order to reach compromise, participants in political debate can diverge from common understanding; while agreeing on the language (the information system of informatics) the participants disagree on the action being labeled (the social system). While this step can lead to agreement, it does violate the focus of progressive discourse on improving conceptual artifacts. For progressive discourse to continue, it is essential to preserve the conceptual artifact so modifying it to achieve political agreement is contrary to progressive discourse. Maintaining the integrity of the conceptual artifacts and the common understanding upon which those are built is more important in progressive discourse than political agreement.

Expand Fact

In the vernacular, fact typically means information that is true and accurate; implicit also is the assumption that the fact is objectively defined so that every observer will agree on the both reality of the fact and the meaning of the fact. A more sophisticated view of facts recognizes the role that one’s perspective exerts on how one senses and interprets facts. In science, a fact is any idea that can be tested; and some are refuted by tests while others are supported by tests. Those facts refuted by observation are probably inaccurate, and those supported by observation are more likely to be true and accurate.

Richard Feynmann served on the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster in 1986, and he observed that much empirical evidence had been ignored and that decisions that led to the disaster had been made for political reasons. Feynman concluded his observations, which appeared in an appendix rather than in the full report, with the statement “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled” (Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, 1986). Progressive discourse requires the group regard reality as Nature intends, and observation is necessary to expand the factual basis of progressive discourse.

Whereas political and personal whim and individual or social preferences may be acceptable reasons for political decision making, the knowledge building that occurs through progressive discourse requires fact. The proposals to improve the conceptual artifact are all subject to test and the group must accept those facts supported by (and reject those facts refuted by) empirical evidence. In the progressive discourse, planners do have the responsibility to differentiate disparate interpretations that result from different perspectives and those that arise from personal or political whim—a difficult task.

Role of Criticism

If it is to be driven by fact, progressive discourse relies on criticism of methods and results and interpretations of results. In science, such challenges lead to more and more detailed observations and empirical evidence to support fact; progressive discourse relies on similar criticism. This is another characteristic of progressive discourse that differentiates it from the consensus-reaching compromises common in political discussions. In a political discussion, participants may criticize ideas for any reason and the task of evaluating the criticisms is left to the judgment of the individual and collective audience. In progressive discourse, participants may only criticize ideas so that deeper understanding can be constructed and conceptual artifacts improved.


If progressive discourse is to be fact-driven, then it cannot be designed or undertaken to support a political or economic conclusion that is established prior to beginning. Ignoring facts because they appear to violate one’s political or religious sensibilities or that are contrary to those espoused by one who is more powerful is inconsistent with progressive discourse. Equally inconsistent is selecting facts so they conform to pre-conceived conclusions.

In education settings, the existing pedagogy is likely to be very entrenched and individuals will seek to adhere to those practices in a manner that is similar to how others adhere to political or religious beliefs. Observations can either support or refute the factual basis of continuing existing practice, but continuing existing practices “because that is how it is done” is an untenable position in progressive discourse.

For educational communities that begin the work of continuous reinvention that will be essential in the 21st century classroom, progressive discourse will become the expected method of strategic and action planning. Just as some pedagogies (e.g. the flat classrooms) have started the transition to 21st century classrooms, some action planning procedures have begun to transition to progressive discourse. In the decades I have been a participant in curriculum and technology planning in various schools and educational organizations, I have observed two approaches: In one, the committee meets to recommend purchase decisions or to write a plan that ostensibly guides decisions but frequently is ignored until it is time to write the next plan. In the second (which is in the minority), the team asks questions such as “what do we mean by technology-rich classrooms?” as they seek to clarify their conceptual artifacts. These teams ask “what does it look like now?” as they seek to establish the facts of their current practice. Those groups that follow the second approach have begun to establish progressive discourse which is a practice that will build capacity and culture for the systemic change necessary to transition to 21st century classrooms.


Bereiter, Carl. (2002). Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age. New York: Routledge.

Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. 1986. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Accessed November 1, 2011,